Saddling Up 

With a lot of groundwork and a sly little remark, George Allen tests the political waters.

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Some political rebounds may best be made in cowboy boots. George Allen, the boot-wearing, tobacco-chewing, “macaca”-uttering former Republican governor and U.S. senator, recently has been seen stepping out — and stepping it up.

He laid the groundwork with a slew of public appearances during the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial campaign, a publicized tax-credit teaming with former state Democratic Party chairman Paul Goldman and a stream of ramped-up commentary on hot political issues such as health care and energy policy.

It all hit a crescendo recently with a hint at possible Senate bid in 2012.

“Many people have encouraged me to run,” Allen said in a Dec. 23 interview with The Washington Post. “And the answer is: perhaps,” he mused.

On the heels of the interview, Public Policy Polling, a survey company based in Raleigh, N.C., released data from an August poll of 579 Virginia voters that put Allen and Sen. Jim Webb neck-and-neck in a speculative 2012 rematch.

Tom Jensen, director of the private pollster, says Allen's strength in such a rematch largely would rely on President Barack Obama's future popularity — the proverbial midterm referendum on a sitting administration's performance.
The soaring morale of the Virginia Republican Party “would give Allen a good opportunity if he decided to make a comeback,” Jensen says.

For now, Allen is signaling to the Virginia GOP that he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate — a message the state party is likely to welcome, political observers say. The charismatic politician still is considered a heavyweight in state Republican circles, and many party loyalists compare his style — upbeat, down-home, chatty — with that of Reagan's. “There are not too many Republicans in Virginia who are going to easily jump at the chance of taking on George Allen,” says Bob Holsworth, longtime political analyst and founder of Virginia Tomorrow, a state politics blog and consulting company.

That's not to say that Allen's 2006 derogatory salute to a Democratic campaign volunteer of Indian descent — “macaca” is considered a racial slur in some cultures — didn't cost his party and, at least in the short-term, his career.

Allen suffered an extremely narrow loss — by a little more than 9,300 votes — and although 2006 was an abysmal year for the GOP generally — with Democrats taking over the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate — many observers say it was Allen's mishandling of the gaffe that cost him the race. Allen repeatedly apologized after his campaign manager said the politician had nothing to apologize for.

Only 12 percent of African-Americans polled in the Public Policy Polling survey said they would vote for Allen in 2012, compared with 61 percent who said they would vote for Webb. But some local black political leaders who campaigned for Allen in the 2006 election — former state Sen. Benjamin Lambert III and the Rev. Joe Ellison Jr., senior pastor of Essex Village Evangelistic Church in Henrico County — say they'd support him again. Antione M. Green, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, also is a longtime Allen supporter.

Despite the unknown long-term effect of “macaca” in a future Allen, “the fact is that most Republicans still believe that he was the target of a media hit more than anything,” says Holsworth, who considers Allen's recent comment to the Post “very shrewd.”

“By saying ‘perhaps' … [Allen has] frozen the rest of the Republican field,” Holsworth says. The whole field, too: The real question for Allen is not whether he's considering running, but which elected office or offices he's considering. Is Allen solely eyeing a rematch for the Senate seat occupied by Webb, or will another shot at the governorship prove irresistible?

By Holsworth's observation, Allen prefers the executive branch to the legislative one. But a gubernatorial run would be “a more complicated task” for Allen, he says. For starters, there's the Bill Bolling factor: The lieutenant governor, who was re-elected in the GOP landslide in November, famously put aside his own gubernatorial ambitions so that the governor-elect, Bob McDonnell, could run. Bolling is seen as “very much the good soldier within the party,” Holsworth says. “And I don't think Allen in particular would like to be seen as somebody elbowing someone aside.”

David Hicks, a former Richmond commonwealth's attorney and current senior policy analyst for Mayor Dwight C. Jones, says he's heard of “discussions” in which Allen figures more prominently as a gubernatorial candidate, with Bolling as a possible challenger to Webb. According to Hicks, “Bolling is … not in charge of his own destiny.” Hicks counts Allen, along with Sen. Mark Warner and McDonnell, as “one of the Virginians who could potentially run for president some day.”

Holsworth says no matter what Allen runs for, if he runs at all, the one-time formidable campaigner is certain to make a better go at it than he did in 2006 — albeit with “repair work” needed among some minority groups, Holsworth says.

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